Recently I read a review of  a new book by Terry Eagleton called Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.  A very fine survey of his life can also be found here.  The review of this particular volume was so compelling that I ran out and got it, and you should too.

Call me provincial, living under a rock, or clueless, but I had never heard of Terry Eagleton before.  Where have I been?  The guy is fantastic, his prose saturated in wry wit, razory rhetoric, and provocative thinking.

I want to be him when I grow up.

His preface begins this way:

Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs.  For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology.  I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics.  But it is also the case, as this book argues, that most such critics buy their rejection on the cheap.  When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own.  It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinions of it.

Although it’s not clear whether he’s any particular flavor of Christian now, he was certainly raised as a Roman Catholic.  Some dicey experiences with the tradition helped to offer a healthy skepticism about the Church.

The book itself is essentially a publication of the Terry Lectures delivered at Yale in 2008.  And of the invitation to give them, he wrote:

My delight…was quickly tempered as I read on to discover that the Terry Lectures are traditionally devoted to two subjects I know embarrassingly little about, namely science and religion….[and] I should also confess that since the only theology I don’t know much about is Christian theology, as opposed to those kinds I know nothing at all about, I shall confine my discussion to that alone, on the grounds that it is better to be provincial than presumptuous.

And that’s the cadence of writing that carries the reader throughout the text.

But for the moment, there’s a section near the end of the book that I found myself a-ha-ing (as in a moment of insight, not as in laughter, both scenarios being very possible when reading Eagleton) even more than otherwise, and so naturally I thought “blog it!”  Eagleton reframes faith here in such a way that demonstrates that a) all people have faith in something; and b) faith isn’t an archenemy to reason.

That is, you don’t have to be a non-thinking cheeseball to have faith.

In the indented passage below, the object of his words is Ditchkens, an elided form of the prolific atheist authors Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the former of whom he was once friends, “comrades in the same far-left political outfit.  But he has gone on to higher things, discovering in the process a degree of political maturity as a naturalized citizen of Babylon, whereas I have remained stuck in the same old political groove, a case of arrested development if ever there was one.”

While Eagleton appreciates their writing (writing of Hitchens’ God is Not Great as “stylish, entertaining, splendidly impassioned, and compulsively readable” while offering Dawkins only that his “doctrinal ferocity has begun to eat into his prose style”), he is bothered by their disdain of the notion of ‘faith’ while extolling ‘reason.’  At one point he critiques Hitchens who wrote in God is Not Great that “thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important” (282).  “But Christianity,” says Eagleton, “was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place.  It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”


O.K.  But back to the point at hand.

So Eagleton wants to spend some time examining why the operating assumption is that exclusive reason is laudable anyway, even if one were to grant that it is possible.

A hunger for absolute justification is a neurosis, not a tenacity to be admired.  It is like checking every five minutes that there is not nest of hissing cobras under your bed, or like the man in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations who buys a second copy of the daily newspaper to assure himself that what the first copy said was true.  Justifications must come to an end somewhere; and where they generally come to an end is in some kind of faith.

Christopher Hitchens would appear to disagree about this question of grounding.  “Our belief is not a belief,” he writes of atheists like himself in God is Not Great.  “Our principles are not a faith” (5).  So liberal humanism of the Ditchkins variety is not a belief.  It involves, for example, no trust in men and women’s rationality or desire for freedom, no conviction of the evils of tyranny and oppression, no passionate faith that men and women are at their best when not laboring under myth and superstition.  Hitchens is clear that secular liberals like himself (we lay charitably aside here his neo-conservative fellow-traveling) do not rely “solely upon science and reason,” so he is not contrasting belief with scientifically based propositions.  What he is really doing is contrasting his own beliefs with other people’s.  “We [secular liberals] distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason,” he observes (5).  Most Christians do not in fact hold that their faith contradicts science–though it would be plausible to claim that in some sense science contradicts itself all the time, and that this is known as scientific progress.  Hitchens fails to distinguish between reasonable beliefs and unreasonable ones.  His belief that one should distrust anything that outrages reason is one example of a reasonable belief, while his belief that all belief is blind is an example of an unreasonable one.

Ditchkins does not exactly fall over himself to point out how many major scientific hypotheses confidently cobbled together by our ancestors have crumbled to dust, and how probabl it is that the same fate will befall many of the most cherished scientific doctrines of the present. (124-25).

Just before this passage, Eagleton points out that we have ‘faith’ in many things we’ve never seen before: the unconscious, the expertise of specialists, and even in things that don’t exist, such as a “wholly just society.”  “The whole question of faith and knowledge,” says Eagleton, “is a good deal more complex than the rationalist suspects.”

Let me be clear: I’m not knocking science, and I’m not knocking reason.  That I feel compelled to write that disclaimer points to Eagleton’s agenda.  Christians have been misunderstood–perhaps most egregiously by themselves!–to disdain science and reason, and therefore be unreasonable, believing in a “mere myth.”

I think that what Eagleton brings to the table is a helpful reminder that life demands acts of faith.  We cannot function without some measure of faith in something, because, in point of fact, not everything is provable.  Not even the laudable and recitable “with liberty and justice for all,” E=Mc2, or “I love you.”

That said, he is also right that Christians are compelled to be able to provide some reasons for their faith claims!  On what basis do we believe what we do?  Is it consistent within its own faith claims?  Does it jibe with our experience of reality?  As I have said before, many reasons can be given for many claims, but not all reasons are equally valid.

In short, Eagleton seems to think that Christians have a responsibility to know why we say we believe what we do, and that secular humanists have a responsibility to not dismiss (or just plain old diss) Christians by tapping into their weakest and most stereotypical expressions.

I have faith that that is a reasonable proposition to make.

What do you think?